“Old enough to know better, young enough to do it anyway,” reads Venkatesh Iyer’s Twitter bio. A former chartered accountant aspirant, Iyer received his maiden call-up to India’s T20I squad for the three-match series against New Zealand starting next week. At 26, he is old enough to know the expectation that the news brings with itself, but young enough to show his wares at the highest level.
A good hitter of the cricket ball, pre-dominantly a middle/lower middle-order batter, asked to become an opener, does well – this is not about Rohit Sharma. Iyer, who had a breakthrough season with Kolkata Knight Riders in the second leg of IPL 2021, had a similar turnaround, thanks to Chandrakant Pandit’s keen eyes.
Pandit has been in the circuit for quite long and knows a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. As coach of various teams in the Indian domestic circuit, he observed Madhya Pradesh’s Iyer used to bat in the middle order. The highest that the southpaw batted – in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali (SMA) Trophy combined – since his debut was at number three.
After being appointed as the coach of Madhya Pradesh, Pandit had a conversation with Iyer after the practice games ahead of the SMA Trophy 2020-21. It was about his batting order. Iyer was getting a mere 25-30 balls to face batting in the middle order and Pandit wondered about the carnage that the left-hander could go if he got 120.
“I asked him if he would open. He didn’t say he won’t do it. But he was a bit skeptical since he had never opened the batting and was confident and comfortable in the middle order,” shares Pandit in a candid chat with Free Press Journal.
“Players generally become comfortable after essaying a particular role for some time and that’s natural. But I told him that Iyer the opener would benefit the team as well as himself. I assured him the runs will flow and that if they didn’t, he can slot back to the no.6-7 slot.”
The result? In the five matches that he played in the following SMA Trophy, he returned 227 runs at a strike-rate of 149.34. Pandit wanted Iyer to have an “impact” and that is what happened.
“He is a very keen learner and is determined. He is educated and has a good grasping ability,” Pandit adds. “Iyer is a team man.”
That’s not all.
Kolkata Knight Riders batter Venkatesh Iyer acknowledges the crowd during IPL 2021. | Photo: BCCI/Sportzpics for IPL
In the Vijay Hazare Trophy that followed, the 26-year-old made 273 runs at a strike rate of 123.52, 198 of those in a single match. Batting first against Punjab, he struck 20 fours and seven sixes in the knock that lasted 146 balls. Though it might have pleased Iyer, Pandit wasn’t too happy.
"He must have probably thought players and coach might appreciate me. But I was the last person to appreciate him because of the way he got out,” recalls the former India wicket-keeper.
“The words of the late Ramakant Achrekar will always stay with me – when things are going well, don’t mess around because during your struggling times, you will be desperate to score runs.”
And all this while, Iyer’s currency wasn’t just runs. He was constantly picking up wickets, not in heaps, but enough to keep him in the category of batting all-rounders. Attacking batter, useful seam bowler, gun fielder – all these meant that he first was picked up in the IPL, where he scored 370 runs after he was played in the UAE leg of 2021.
India’s top order riches mean that it isn’t always easy to get a call-up, despite the performances in the domestic circuit. But Pandit, for all his experience in the sport, guided the youngster with a thought process: Why not think about the impact than think about the competition at the higher level? If you think about the higher level from the start, you will not be able to sustain. First stabilize yourself by performing and then automatically the opportunity will come. Ultimately there has to be a competition and consistency will always be looked at (in selection).
Pandit helped Iyer iron out the chinks in his batting technique; his back-lift was quite high, with the back of the bat going as high as his head. Now it has come mid-way and the back of the bat extends to around his waist. In the latest season of the SMA Trophy, Iyer scored the most for Madhya Pradesh - 155 runs at a strike rate of close to 141. However, the team couldn't qualify for the knockouts, their loss to Kerala proving decisive.
The versatility is perhaps what’s fast-tracked Iyer - lower-order smasher, top-order bludgeoner. Hardik Pandya didn’t have the desired performance in the Men’s T20 World Cup 2021 and was left out of the T20Is against the Kiwis. Even though Iyer’s recent rise has been attributed to his batting at the top, having done well in the middle-order perhaps kept him in the reckoning.
During our conversation, Pandit used the word ‘ambitious’ to describe Iyer quite frequently. That quality will ensure that Iyer does whatever is asked of him at the top level and he is young enough to do it anyway.
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